It has to be weird being around Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte as an acquaintance or teammate of the duo who have been swimming with and against each other in international competition for over a decade now. How do you deal with being around two people who can be described as friends, partners and rivals, with the latter two labels seemingly being shed with the two men swimming the 200-meter individual medley last night? Possibly the last time the two will ever compete against each other at the Olympics if Phelps keeps his word and retires.
“I guess you would say I’d be like the Michael Phelps of swimming if he wasn’t there,” Lochte recently told NBC when asked what would be different about his career if Phelps never existed. It’s a strange answer, but it’s also a weird question, the kind that really had no right answer. Lochte thinking that he’d be the most decorated Olympian ever if the actual most successful Olympic athlete, Phelps, had never been born, does have some merit. Strip away all the “sex idiot” jokes, and take away the talk about his bleached hair turning green, and you do have a very talented and successful swimmer. You can’t take that away from him.
But what’s more likely is that without a Michael Phelps, Lochte probably wouldn’t be as great as he is or thinks he could be. That’s no slight on Lochte as a swimmer, but Phelps has been both an intricate part of Lochte’s success, starting with their shared 4×200-meter freestyle relay gold medal win in the 2004 Athens Games. There was the victory, and then there was Phelps defeating a crowd of swimmers including Lochte in the 200-meter individual medley. From that moment on, Lochte would always be the little brother. He’d have to spend his career chasing Phelps, the swimmer he could never catch.
There’s the other side to all of that, of course. How much has Lochte pushed Phelps? He’s been the great swimmer beside him, the talented athlete who, on a really good day, could have conceivably caught up to Phelps, maybe not in the medal count, but maybe in the pool. He might do it nine out of ten times, but when you’re a competitor, the kind that eclipses all medal records like Phelps has, you want ten for ten. You don’t want that guy bettering you.
That’s competition, that’s also a partnership, and that’s the story of Phelps and Lochte. It isn’t Ruth and Gehrig or Jordan and Pippen; they’re teammates, they help each other succeed, but one has to not only be the better one, he has to beat the other. One of the teammates has to win and the other has to sometimes lose. It’s a weird dichotomy to those of us who spend so much time watching team sports, growing up with the “There’s no “I” in team” mantra. There is an I in swimming, and that’s been Phelps for all of these years. It’s been him. And last night, after Phelps hit one end of the pool, pulled away from his friend, partner and rival in the 200-meter individual medley, and also got almost a full body ahead of the eventual silver medal winner, it was simply him again.